Three - Conflict & Rising ActionA Lesson by Alex
This one's a doozy; strap in for Rising Action!
OK, we made it past the delicate Introduction, tiptoeing carefully though Exposition, and slowly stepped back to examine our handiwork. It's standing on its own - not teetering, threatening to topple over on our story at any second. Good, we made a solid intro. TIME FOR SOME FUN!
And what’s more fun than a quick English class refresher course? Ha! Oh my God, did you think I meant – NO! There will be no fun had here, only SERIOUS PLOT STRUCTURE THEORY/APPRECIATION! Ahem…sorry. Before we start throwing conflicts as our Protagonist, we need to reacquaint ourselves with the different types of conflict. Remember – all literary conflicts should have at least one thing in common: they stand between the Protagonist and one or more of his goals.
The first type is the most straightforward: Man vs. Man. This conflict encompasses any character opposed by another. This conflict can be physical, social or emotional. Many times, all three sides can be present. Let’s refer to our pal Harry Potter. Harry vs. Malfoy is overtly present throughout the book, though it’s kept almost exclusively social – Malfoy constantly trying to affect Harry’s social status or frame him into losing House Points. An emotional version of this type of conflict could be caused from a budding or wilting relationship, or even from a mentally abusive parent. Physical Man vs. Man is pretty self-explanatory: usually involving a physical fight, or other contest of might. This could range from a simple brawl to a fight-to-the-death.
Next, we have Man vs. Nature. “Nature” doesn’t need to refer to plants, water, etc. Think of Nature in this context to be a general term encompassing the “Man’s” environment. In the case of Harry Potter, Hogwarts could be “Nature”. Still not fully acquainted with its vast layout and ever-changing corridors and staircases, Harry found himself on several occasions being late to class, or getting lost and winding up in places he shouldn’t be. Man vs. Nature is almost exclusively a physical conflict, though, usually following a man’s survival within the elements.
Next, there’s Man vs. Society. There’s a pretty blurry line between Man vs. Man and Man vs. Society in terms of how many people are required to turn multiple “Men” into “Society”. I’ll leave it up to you to decide on a case-by-case basis; Harry’s encounters with Malfoy, Crabbe, and Goyle would be Man vs. Man, but the general animosity of Slytherin House vs. Harry would be Man vs. Society. Most Man vs. Society conflicts are social in nature, though in a story of war or involving an angry mob, it is commonly a physical conflict instead.
Finally, there’s Man vs. Self. This is almost exclusively an emotional conflict. When Harry discovers the Mirror of Erised, he finally comes face-to-face with his deceased family. As this was something that made Harry very happy, it was cleverly disguised as a boon, not a conflict. However, this mirror really forced Harry to confront a part of himself that he didn’t even know was there: loneliness. Harry risked being caught out of bed (which would have resulted in detentions and point deductions) a half dozen times JUST to be with some moving pictures of his family. It took some serious will power (and a pep talk with Dumbledore) to break that habit. And it also meant accepting a cold, unkind fact that had never seemed to bother him until then: his parents would never be there for him. Ever.
There’s a reason I saved Man vs. Self for last; this is easily the most rewarding conflict to include in a plot. It’s easy for a Protagonist to look at all the daunting obstacles in his way and blame them if he fails. When those obstacles are himself, though, it requires real inward reflection/examination to overcome them, and if he can’t, there’s no one to blame but himself. These conflicts usually require the most character evolution to overcome, and therefore usually result in the most dynamic character arc.
OK, now that we’ve defined Conflict, as well as the four different types, we can finally talk about applying it to our Plot. When your Rising Action begins, keep in mind that, generally speaking, the more the Protagonist has to gain, the better off you’ll be. This gives him a reason to set a goal. This could mean he has character flaws to overcome, or he lost a job or a loved one, maybe he’s the subject of public ridicule, or maybe a single person harasses him on a regular basis. These personal problems don’t need to be connected to his goal. In fact, this is more part of the Introduction than the Rising Action. It’s OK that I’m talking about it here, though, because it’s directly connected to my next point:
When the Rising Action has ended (i.e. just before the Climax), the Protagonist should be standing at the other end of this spectrum: he needs to have as much to LOSE as possible. Don’t forget that conflicts aren’t the only thing running around in the Rising Action – throughout this part of the plot, the Protagonist is growing. He’s making friends, learning more about himself, and otherwise expanding as a character. With more to lose, you’re setting your Climax up to be more exciting.
This doesn’t mean that every story needs to have life as we know it hanging in the balance – this is all about perspective. Harry Potter finds himself defending the entire Wizarding World (of England) by the Climax of nearly every book, but let’s look at another popular kid’s story: Toy Story. The end goal here is for Woody to make it back to Andy’s with Buzz before they move. If this goal isn’t met…two of a little boy’s toys will be lost. That’s just about as low as the stakes get. But as we’ve gotten to know Woody, and seen everything he’s gone through, how much he cares about Andy, watching him learn to accept Buzz as a genuinely better toy then him, and escaping the evil lair of Cid, we’re properly invested to the point where seeing him fail will have a negative emotional effect on us.
This is your goal in the Rising Action. After you introduce him in the Introduction, you need to build your Protagonist up for the reader In the Rising Action. Let’s take a look at where Harry stands at the end of the Rising Action – which for me ends after he walks through the wall of fire, leaving Hermione behind, though many could argue that it ends when they’re about to face Fluffy for the final time. He’s spent a full term at Hogwarts, where he’s made two great friends, fallen in love with Quidditch, and finally found a place that accepts him and offers an escape from his life on Privet Drive. Losing all that would be terrible indeed, but Harry knows that if he doesn’t face this Climax, his life at Hogwarts could very well come to an end. The only way for him to protect everything he’s gained is to go forward.
Some of you may be saying wait, I thought you said the “goal” was to gain points and win the House Cup. The Climax is obviously when he faces Voldemort, what gives? True – the goal of winning the House Cup is what gets the Rising Action started, but the first goal introduced doesn’t always stay the final one. In fact, the goal of winning the House Cup turns out to cleverly be just a vehicle used to introduce the main goal (stop the Philosopher’s Stone from being stolen). Every tiny piece of the puzzle is revealed as a tiny side detail while the main focus is House Points – introducing Snape as the Red Herring by unfairly taking points from Gryffindor, discovering Fluffy by hiding from Filch to avoid detention, and learning that Voldemort himself could be behind it all DURING detention.
While the Philosopher’s Stone was always the most important factor here, it’s ultimately up to the characters to decide so. Harry pointedly decides that if he gets expelled trying to stop the stone from being stolen, he’ll simply have to wait for Voldemort to come find him at Privet Drive instead of Hogwarts. Harry understands that the House Cup isn’t the end all goal of this story, and shifts his focus accordingly. You may find that your Protagonist’s priorities must be shuffled once or twice during the story. Sometimes this is planned, and sometimes it’ll come as a complete surprise to you. If the latter is the case, don’t fight it – this is often the most beautiful change your character can make: one that you yourself didn’t expect. If you run with it for a while and find you don’t like it, go ahead and make some changes.
Whew. OK, I know I’ve kind of been all over the place with this lesson, so if you’re still with me, I thank you. We’re almost done. Rising Action is very liquid and can encompass an infinite number of plot developments. Some developments are negative, and some are positive. One thing to keep in mind for every development is that the story should be moving forward. If you decided to devote a full chapter to two characters having a conversation, make sure that at the end of it, one of the characters (or at the very least the narrator) is able to apply some part of the discussion to the plot. It doesn’t have to be super significant, but if an entire scene can pass without any relevance to the overarching plot, then the scene is pointless.
I know many of you probably haven’t seen Pulp Fiction, but this is a great example of what I’m talking about. When you first meet John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson’s characters, they’re just talking. Talking and talking and talking. It’s engaging dialogue, sure, and it’s defining their characters, but does anything about their conversation ever come back? Yup. The very next scene, a harmless side comment about a McDonald’s Double Quarter Pounder is brought up again. Additionally, an upcoming “date” that’s brought up becomes a major plot factor later in the movie. It’s been a while, but I’m pretty sure that was everything from the opening dialogue between those two characters that’s brought up again. Everything else is just atmosphere.
Atmosphere is great – it gives the characters and plot time to breath, which a lot of writers can forget to plan for. Just make sure your atmosphere has some substance. This point can be applied not just with talking scenes, but with action scenes, sex scenes, scary scenes, etc. If you can remove the scene without the overarching plot losing any substance, then you should either remove it, or add something to it – even if it’s just a couple lines talking about a date one of the characters has later in the plot (just make sure that date ALSO has substance).
So what have we learned? Ugh God, I’ve been rambling about Rising Action for like a day now…We’ve learned what Conflict is, why it’s important, and how the different types can be applied. We’ve learned that alongside conflicts, the Protagonist should be growing. We’ve learned that characters are alive and can sometimes surprise you with where the story winds up. And we’ve learned that everything in the Rising Action should have forward motion within the plot.
I think the reason I’ve been stuck on this Lesson for so long is that the Rising Action is so multifaceted that a simple formula can’t cover every single one. Introduction is easy to define: introduce main character, introduce setting, set goals, bam. The Introduction may be more important, but the Rising Action is a living, breathing entity; you can attack it from so many different angles, it’s hard to pin down just what is possible once you’re there. Hopefully, I’ve illustrated this properly, and given you a better understanding of what to expect once you reach this part of your plot. Don’t be discouraged by the weight of all the different Rising Actions like I’ve been – you only need to worry about one: yours.
Added on July 2, 2015
Last Updated on July 2, 2015
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